23 Feb 2016

Death toll continues to rise in Fiji as recovery begins

7:20 am on 23 February 2016

The death toll from Cyclone Winston now stands at 21, and it is feared that number will rise further when communication is restored to outlying islands, Fiji's public broadcaster says.

The most powerful storm in the country's recorded history barrelled into Fiji's main island of Viti Levu and neighbouring smaller islands late on Saturday, destroying entire villages, flooding low-lying areas, and wiping out crops.

Fiji's public broadcaster FBC News on Monday reported that 21 people were confirmed dead - at least 10 of whom were killed in the hard-hit Western Division.

Among them were three people who died on Viti Levu and a 97-year-old who drowned during storm surges at the height of the storm.

Four others were hit by flying debris and one died after a house collapsed.

Four people were still missing at sea, the broadcaster said.

Apart from this, 8438 people are currently in evacuation centres around the country.

More than 50 evacuation centres around the country are accommodating those who fled their homes during the height of Cyclone Winston.

A 30-day state of emergency is in place across the country in the aftermath of the cyclone, and schools and universities are closed until the end of the week.

The settlement of Lovu, near Lautoka, is still without power or water following Cyclone Winston.

The settlement of Lovu, near Lautoka, is still without power or water following Cyclone Winston. Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrottet

Follow RNZ International reporter Alex Perrottet, who is in Fiji

A New Zealand Defence Force Orion has been conducting aerial surveillance of the outer islands of Koro, Lau, Taveuni and Rabi.

Air support was also due to arrive from Australia and France.

Mark Ramsden, New Zealand's High Commissioner in Fiji, said an Air Force Hercules plane would arrive on Monday night carrying its first load of relief supplies.

He said initial surveillance suggested the Northern Lau Group, Lomaiviti, the northern coast of Viti Levu, and parts of the Yasawas were the worst affected.

Mr Ramsden said the Fiji government was prepared and swung into action very quickly, but some outer islands were inaccessible and without outside help.

A New Zealand Defence Force C-130 Hercules is on its to Fiji

A New Zealand Defence Force C-130 Hercules is on its to Fiji. Photo: DEFENCE

"The Fijian government is trying very hard to get boats there, there are also options for helicopters. New Zealand has a NZDF C-130 Hercules coming in this evening carrying relief supplies and a joint reconnaisance team and you know, subject to tasking by the Fiji government, that may well be directed to those hardest hit areas," he said.

The Fiji government said the damage to homes and other infrastructure was enormous and a relief team comprising military personnel, health, and rehabilitation experts was on standby to provide relief support.

FBC News reported almost 8440 people were in evacuation centres around the country.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has called on all government agencies to prioritise the deployment of their staff to these communities to provide relief support and assistance.

He has advised all agencies in charge of relief efforts to ensure that all possible options are looked at to ensure that an immediate response is provided.

The New Zealand government yesterday made $50,000 of emergency funds and $170,000 of relief supplies available.

Devastation caused by Cyclone Winston to Fiji's outer islands

Devastation caused by Cyclone Winston to Fiji's outer islands Photo: NZ Defence Force

Oxfam regional director Raijeli Nicole said this morning that the organisation had not been able to ascertain the scale of destruction in Suva because of the curfew that remained in place, but assessments would be taking place today.

It was possible whole villages had been destroyed and she hoped to have more information about the situation following a meeting in Suva, she said.

The biggest priorities in Fiji were around food, shelter, water and sanitation, Miss Nicole said. "Of course it's around getting people back on their feet."

In an interview on Monday afternoon, a Unicef spokesperson, Alice Clements, said two boats carrying relief supplies has departed for Ovalau and Koro.

"Those two boats will be taking medical and emergency supplies - a wide variety of supplies. Education supplies for kids whose schools have been destroyed and their education has been interrupted.

"We know that, even though it seems counter-intuitive in an emergency, getting kids back into school quickly ... is the best way to help them recover emotionally, it's the best way to keep them safe when their parents are focusing on the clean-up and recovery process.

"In addition to medical supplies, we have water sanitation and hygiene supplies, which will help to prevent the spread of disease outbreaks."

Among the hordes of government agencies and international NGOs swarming to assist Fiji were the operators of a traditional voyaging canoe, the Uto Ni Yalo.

Uto Ni Yalo Trust secretary Dwain Qalovaki said the wind- and solar-powered vaka's shallow drift made it ideal for transporting relief supplies to some of the least accessible outer islands.

"At this point, the Uto Ni Yalo stands ready to assist in whichever capacity or form we can provide," Mr Qalovaki said.

"Our crew [and] our vessel is on standby and we hope to be of some assistance in the coming days."

Fiji squatter settlements badly damaged

Fiji's People's Community Network national director Semiti Qalowasa said many of the country's squatter settlements had been badly damaged and thousands of people faced an uncertain future.

The settlements are home to many of the country's poorest, where entire families live in poorly-built huts made from basic materials like rusted corrugated iron and tree branches.

Mr Qalowasa said many of those who had lost their homes were now in evacuation centres.

But the centres weren't likely to stay open for more than a week and it was unclear what those people would do after they closed, he said.

"These people will always get the last support so we rely most ... [on] donors from other countries."

Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism Faiyaz Koya said there were no reports of any significant structural damage to the majority of hotels in the main island of Viti Levu, except for some properties in the Rakiraki area.

"We understand that friends and families are very concerned, however, we request everyone to remain calm. Cyclone Winston has caused extensive damage to the communications infrastructure, hence, mobile and Internet communications in some parts of Fiji maybe affected. However, communication is active in Suva, Nadi, Denarau and along the Coral Coast."

Flights resume in and out of Fiji

Mr Koya said tourists in the country were safe and comfortable.

Air New Zealand has resumed flights to and from Fiji. A spokesman for the airline confirmed its two flights, one from Auckland to Nadi at 9.30am, and another from Nadi to Auckland at 1pm, would go ahead as scheduled.

The spokesman said bigger planes would be used for the flights to increase capacity in and out of Fiji.

Fiji Airways flights were also expected to resume today.

The airline said it would make tourists who wanted to go home a priority.